- Affect, Animals, and Autists: Feeling Around the Edges of the Human in Performance by Marla Carlson
In this absorbing study, Marla Carlson brings together the overlapping critical frameworks of performance studies and affect theory to critique humanist ideologies underlying theatrical representation and reception. Her richly detailed analyses—ranging from scripted drama to improvisational dance—confirm the view that many contemporary works engaging head-on with animals and autism in seemingly novel ways are, in fact, “built upon a solid foundation of avant-garde theatrical experiment” (41), developed decades before the rise of critical animal studies, disability studies, and the neurodiversity movement.
Chapter one, “Locating the Human in Performance,” lays the groundwork for Carlson’s claim that “theatre and related forms of performance constitute exemplary affect workshops” (1), incorporating the contagious intensity of shared sensation into the public sphere, where it operates as a form of collective cognition. This chapter presents numerous theories of affect (from Silvan Tomkins to Gilles Deleuze), distinguishing autonomic energy and circulation from conscious emotions and feelings and explaining the political implications of both. Drawing on these concepts throughout, Carlson examines “the ways in which specific performances elicit categorical affects to manipulate their audiences, whether to affirm, expand, or obliterate the boundaries of the human” (13).
Chapter two, “Performing as Animals,” tracks the affective flows in The Lion King (1997) and War Horse (2007), plays whose animal characters—created through magnificent puppets and masks—reliably produce awe and wonder, opening up possibilities for cross-species identifications that challenge “anthropocentric viewing positions” (22). But instead of reaching toward the sublime, with its attendant feelings of precarity and insignificance, affect is channeled into tenderness and care as the plays’ sentimental plots “focus [on] human social concerns and celebrate human achievement” (22), allowing viewers to emerge from the theatre with a sense of their own benevolence and power while “foreclos[ing] any challenge to familiar structures of feeling” (23).
More ambiguous animal dramas, such as Deke Weaver’s ELEPHANT (2010), interrupt the mechanisms that reproduce humanist ideologies via affective control. Staged in the University of Illinois’s massive Stock Pavilion, ELEPHANT brings documentary elements into contact with imaginative, layered storytelling, creating an event that is similarly monumental and compelling in its use of puppets and technology. But rather than sublimating awe into prepackaged emotions, Weaver unsettles the assumed passivity of spectators by involving them in shared sensory actions that spur “olfactory and tactile appeal” (45). He troubles their connection to knowledge and status (their own and the elephants’); interrupts narrative flow with episodic, disorienting, contradictory, and generically unstable narrative techniques that “provoke unease rather than [End Page 172] comfort” (42); and produces lingering questions that challenge participants’ ethical relations with living animals and their environments.
The divergent approaches established in the second chapter are revisited in the third, “Performing as Autists,” which opens with a comprehensive analysis of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2012). Using this play as her model, Carlson identifies a new genre she calls the “autism family drama,” a form that “elicits affective investment in the neoliberal happy family and cruel optimism with respect to the stated goals of its protagonist” (51). In her critiques of this and other, less didactic works—such as Mike Leigh’s Two Thousand Years (2005) and Annie Baker’s Body Awareness (2008)—Carlson is adept at deconstructing the narrative logic that reproduces the “gendered stock character” of the (white, male) “Aspie-geek” (61), whose purported “mindblindness” and “obstructed empathy” (67) exemplify “the prosthetic function of disability,” in which “stories center on a deviance that they identify, explain, and either purge or remedy” (54). Catering to the fictional ideal of a normate reader or spectator who is implicitly invoked and addressed by these dramas, Carlson argues, counters the fear and anxiety produced by representations of otherness in autism family dramas.
By contrast, the unmoored affect of fractured and plural characters in Elevator Repair Service’s The Sound...